What a shame that these important historical records are tainted with fuzzy-headed conspiracy thought. There is no point in debating those who obsessively defend these imagined intrigues, unless perhaps to refer them to Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style of American Politics” (1964).
Of course, to appreciate this coverage is to acknowledge the confusion, trauma and denial experienced by the newcasters, stresses they overcame at some times better than others. Newscasters needed to determine whether they should be turning to numerous feeds from New York and Washington and pick from a variety of sources and images to understand what was happening from the perspectives of national security reports, emergency response, and the plight of survivors. While they strove to avoid speculation and at the same time keep up with reports.
The draw of the spectacle and feelings of horror were impossibly incongruous, but it was probably easier for many viewers to absorb what was happening in the live video than it was for those assigned to process the reports and coordinate them with surprising live images. As we listen to Peter Jennings, John Miller and Don Dahler struggling to be accurate and timely within an unfolding tragic spectacle, we are relieved for Jennings when, after the second tower collapse, he marshals 14 seconds of silence before he sighs and says, “It’s hard to put into words, and maybe one doesn’t need to.”
The combination of Don Dahler’s experience and his vantage point to the towers makes this live coverage both more accurate and poignant. As confused as Jennings often was, he and his producers displayed a more nimble readiness to adapt coverage to the events than newscasters at other networks, as we are shocked by the tower collapses.
The first tower collapse occurs live on screen as Pierre Thomas is reporting to Jennings on the Justice Department. Jennings struggles with what he sees on tape and hears from Dahler. (When reading this, it helps to remember that the second tower hit was the first to collapse.)
JENNINGS: Let’s go to the trade tower again, because we now have a — what do we have? We don’t… [Pause.]
MILLER: It looks like, a new plume, a new large plume of smoke. [Pause.]
JENNINGS: No, it may be that something fell off the building. It may be that some has fall… Yep, we don’t know to be perfectly honest. But that is what you’re looking at, is the current — that’s the scene at the moment at the World Trade Center. Don Dahler from ABC’s Good Morning America down in the general vicinity. Don, can you tell us what just happened?
DAHLER: Yes, Peter, it’s Don Dahler down here. I’m four blocks north of the World Trade Center. The second building that was hit by the plane has just completely collapsed. [South tower collapse begins replaying for the first time.] The ENTIRE building has just collapsed, as if a demolition team set off — when you see the old demolitions of these old buildings.
UNKNOWN: My God.
DAHLER: It folded down on itself and it is not there anymore.
UNKNOWN: That should be it.
JENNINGS: [Trying to sign off.] Thanks very much, Don.
DAHLER: It has completely collapsed.
JENNINGS: [Pause.] The whole side has collapsed? I’m looking…
DAHLER: The whole BUILDING has collapsed.
JENNINGS: The whole building has collapsed?
DAHLER: The building has collapsed.
JENNINGS: That’s the southern tower you’re talking about.
DAHLER: Exactly, the second building that we witnessed the airplane enter has been — the top half had been fully involved in flame. It just collapsed. There is panic on the streets, thousands of people running up Church Street, which is what I’m looking out on, trying to get away. [Dahler second guesses himself, and now seems to consider that the plume might be obstructing his view.] But the entire — at least as far as I can see, the top half of the building — at least half of it — I can’t see below that — half of it. Just started with a gigantic rumble, folded in on itself, and collapsed in a huge plume of smoke and dust.
JENNINGS: [Pause.] We are talking about massive casualties here at the moment and we have…[sighs]. [Pause as Jennings watches the plume form in the replay.] That is extraordinary.
DAHLER: There is panic on the streets. There are people screaming and running from the site. [Pause.] The gigantic plume of smoke has reached me and I’m probably a quarter mile north of there.
[Long pause as replay begins again from start.]
JENNINGS: Now this is a — this is what it looked like moments ago. [Pause.] My God. The southern…tower. Ten o’clock Eastern time this morning. Just collapsing…on… itself. We have no idea what caused this. If you wish to bring — anybody who’s ever watched a building being demolished on purpose knows that if you’re going to do this, you have to get at the under infrastructure of a building and bring it down.
[Recall that it was Dahler, not Jennings, who first mentioned demolition, but only as a metaphor, saying “as if” a demolition team had set it off. Jennings is calmly echoing Dahler by talking about demolition. Dahler now probably feels compelled to clarify. The stress of maintaining accuracy is heard in Dahler’s nervous restatements.]
DAHLER: Peter? Uh, what appeared to happen from my vantage point, the top of the building was totally involved in fire and there was — there appeared to be no effort possible to put that fire out. It looked like the top part of the building was so weakened by the fire that the weight of it collapsed the rest of the building. That’s what appeared to happen. I did not see anything happening at the base of the building. It all appeared to start at the top. [Pause.] There was no explosion or anything at the base part of it, but I did see the top part of it started to collapse, the walls started to bulge out — brick, glass, things coming out, and then it collapsed in on itself and it appeared to just fold down from there, from the very top.
JENNINGS: Thanks, Don, very much. Um, just looking at that. I don’t know why [sighs]. The last time the United States was attacked in this fashion was Pearl Harbor in 1941.
MILLER: From the scene now, uh, there’s obviously massive casualties. Usually during these things there’s a little bit of a high pitch but basic calm over the police radios among emergency workers. Um, I can hear them screaming…Signal 1013, uh, which is the police code for help, uh, calling for help.